Addiction: The Ghost in the Machine

mental illnesses and addiction

Addiction: The Ghost in the Machine


What is addiction? This simple question has divided biologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists for decades. Modern science seeks to find the answer by probing the complexities of the brain, but psychiatrists argue that addiction is an individual, emotional process.

In a radical shift a few weeks before the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) released its highly-anticipated 5th edition, the director of the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) announced that the federal agency—which provides grants for research on mental illness—will be “re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” The director, Thomas Insel said:

“While DSM has been described as a ‘Bible’ for the field, it is, at best, a dictionary, creating a set of labels and defining each. The strength of each of the editions of DSM has been ‘reliability’–each edition has ensured that clinicians use the same terms in the same ways. The weakness is its lack of validity… Patients with mental disorders deserve better.”

The NIMH will be replacing the DSM with their own new project, the “Research Domain Criteria (RDoC),” which defines mental disorders based on more specific genetic, neural, and cognitive data—and which does not yet exist in any functional capacity. This nearly coincides with another ambitious research project, the BRAIN Initiative, an attempt to map the activity of every neuron in the human brain announced by the Obama administration at the beginning of April, 2013.

But will we ever unlock the secrets of how we act and why we succumb to mental illnesses and addiction in by exploring the brain? Without a doubt, the brain holds deep mysteries of human behavior, and every day we learn a little more about mankind’s proudest organ, but like the Human Genome Project, it will likely take decades to see the meaning in the road-map we’re beginning to write. Some addiction experts such as Stanton Peele say that the attempt, especially the objective of “curing addiction,” is futile:

“Personality traits, human behavior, and psychopathology just don’t exist at the level of biochemistry. They entail all of lived experience, our social settings, and the behavior and impact of our relationships with those around us. Even the most committed biological determinists recognize the impact on children of deprivation and abuse. Children without material or emotional supports, who have parents whose behavior is abusive or otherwise damaging to them, are more susceptible to any of a variety of bad outcomes – mental illness, addiction, and antisocial behavior. These nonspecific manifestations of abuse cannot be related to genes or to specific brain impulses – how could they be?”

-Ray Lumpp, Editor

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